The brush used in ink painting and calligraphy, as practiced in countries such as Japan, China, and Korea, is very different than those used in traditional western painting arts, such as watercolor or oil painting. Because of the differences, it can be very frustrating for the westerner to learn how to hold and how to use the Asian brush. How the brush is held, and how the brush is manipulated, requires re-learning and re-thinking habits instilled from childhood.
Older Americans who learned cursive writing using the Palmer Method will appreciate the importance of posture in Eastern brush techniques, as well as exercises designed to help learn how to manipulate the brush. Younger people, unexposed to daily handwriting drills in school, may or may not find it a challenge to hold the brush in the prescribed methods, as well as practicing exercises designed to enhance one’s skill in using the brush. Learning how to use a brush may be equated with learning a musical instrument, or, for that matter, learning anything new – practice makes the unfamiliar familiar, and provides the basis from which an acquired skill becomes the vehicle for artistic expression.
For all who wish to learn to control the brush, some information about differences in materials may be helpful. The western paintbrush consists of three parts – the handle, ferrule, and bristles. The handle is generally made of wood, though acrylic or plastics can also be used. It can be long, straight, or curved. At the end the handle is the ferrule, usually made of metal, which holds the bristles of the brush. Some companies, such as Isabey, make brushes with a goose quill wrapped with metal wire, to hold the bristles in place.
Traditional bristles in western brushes are usually sable, squirrel, camel, and hog. Sable is a soft hair from the tail of the sable marten, and is used primarily by watercolorists. Squirrel and camel are also very soft, but do not form the fine point that sable does; their ability to retain water as well as reasonable cost makes them attractive for both professionals and students. Hog bristle is stiff and bouncy and generally used in acrylic and oil painting. Synthetic bristles are also used to create equivalent natural hair brushes.
The shape of a western brush is also different than that of the traditional Asian brushes. Type of medium and desired use determine the shaping of the bristles in the western brush. Broadly speaking, western brushes come as rounds, flats, brights, fans, filberts, slant or angle, riggers, and mops. Rounds are primarily used for detail, with the tip of the brush coming together in a fine point. Sable is famous for this quality. Squirrel and camel can be used to create soft brushes primarily used to spread thin medium quickly, such as in watercolor washes; mops are often made of these hairs. Fans are used spread paint, and for blending. Brights are short and stiff, and have the ability to push paint deep into a canvas, as well as create texture in impasto painting. Flats have longer bristles than brights, and are used spreading paint evenly across the painting surface. Filberts are a variation of the flat brush, having long bristles, but they are structured so that the bottom of the brush is curved. Riggers are detail brushes, with long, narrow bristles capable of creating long graceful lines.
Generally speaking, western brushes do not contain mixtures of hair. Asian brushes can be made up of all sorts of hair – from that of newborn babies, to elephants, to sheep, pony, wolf – and even feathers! These are often mounted in a bamboo handle, although wood or other materials can also be used for the handle. The qualities of different hair determine their usage, just as they do in western brushes. Soft, absorbent hair, such as sheep, is used to create brushes for “boneless” painting, washes, and the beautiful soft shades of dark to light found in sumi-e. Harder hair, such as wolf or pony, is used to create sharper lines, such as found in calligraphy. Combinations of different hair create brushes which might have a firm, hard point along with an absorbent soft hair. In addition to hair and feathers, brushes can also be made of shredded bamboo or dried grasses. In combination with ink, the textures produced by such materials can be very interesting and exciting.
The creation of well-made brushes, whether western or Asian, is labor intensive, with numerous steps involved in the creation of a single brush. Hair is chosen, sorted, cleaned, combed, mounted in a handle. A soft glue is frequently used to help retain the shape and protect the bristles of a brush when shipped. This is easily dissolved by soaking the brush for a while in cool water, and then rinsing out the softened glue prior to initial use. Proper care and cleaning of a paintbrush will aid in its lasting several years, and even old and worn-out brushes still serve their owners in many ways. After use, all brushes need to be cleaned and put away to dry. Asian brushes usually need nothing more than cool water, blotting, and reshaping to a point. They are left to dry either hanging, if there is a loop on them, or on their sides. Never let your Asian brush dry tip up – the glue holding the bristles in place may dissolve, or worse, the brush could mildew or rot.